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History's Most Momentous Press Conference

Daniel Johnson has a entertaining, highly subjective tick-tock of the events leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and his own part in them:

Most of the questions came from tame East German journalists and the wait for a chance to get the microphone was almost unbearable. It seemed like a non-event. The last seven minutes of the press conference, however, were dramatic in every sense, except that no playwright could have come up with a script that so effectively exposed the colossal confidence trick that the Wall had always been.

At 6.53pm, an Italian journalist, Riccardo Ehrman, asked his question: "Herr Schabowski, don't you think this draft travel law you announced a few days ago was a big mistake?" Earlier this year, Ehrman revealed for the first time that his question was not spontaneous, but that he had been tipped off to ask it by the head of the East German news agency, ADN, who apparently told him it was "very important". This suggests that Krenz intended to use the press conference to announce his new policy — a last throw of the dice to save his own leadership and the communist regime. Krenz had decided to give the people what they wanted: unrestricted travel to the West. But he had no intention of opening the Wall.


It was now 6.58pm. A painfully thin, anxious young man in a slightly fogeyish three-piece tweed suit rose to his feet, microphone in hand. I asked the most obvious question that came to mind: "Herr Schabowski, was wird mit der Berliner Mauer jetzt geschehen?" ("Mr Schabowski, what will happen to the Berlin Wall now?") Hundreds of thousands of Germans on both sides of the Wall were watching: they wanted the answer, too. Schabowski looked nonplussed. He announced that this would be the last question. He repeated my question to himself, adding that "the permeability of the Wall from our side does not yet and exclusively resolve the question of the meaning of this fortified state border of the DDR". It was somehow very German to ruminate at such a moment on the meaning of the Berlin Wall. But there was the rub. Now that I had used the fatal words "Berlin Wall", Schabowski could have seized the opportunity to make it clear that there was no question of opening the Wall that night. He could have explained what its rationale would be, now that people would no longer be shot for attempting to cross it. Instead, he hesitated. He stumbled over his words. He waffled about peace and disarmament for two of the longest minutes of his life. But he did not answer the question, because he had no answer. A wall between two halves of a country could have no "meaning" if the people were allowed to travel freely. It was over. And by the time Schabowski had finished just after 7pm, everybody knew it. The pfennig had dropped.

Earlier in the piece, Johnson droped some knowledge about the British press corps' obsessively Adolf-centric coverage of Germany:

I was fluent enough in the language and politics to be dispatched to Bonn by the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings. "Nothing ever happens in Germany," he said. "You've got three months to prove to me that we need a bureau in Bonn. Otherwise, we'll close it and make do with a stringer, like The Times." Once installed in Bonn, I gave the Telegraph what it wanted. Stories about Germany rarely made news in Britain unless they contained the word "Nazi" in the first paragraph, so I was fortunate that Rudolf Hess, the last of the Nazi war criminals languishing in Spandau Prison, died within weeks of my arrival. The Hess story was a foreign correspondent's dream: a mysterious suicide — or was it murder? — involving Hitler's deputy, Cold War diplomacy and jackbooted young neo-Nazis in Bavaria. I made the front page and the story had more legs than a centipede.

As the academics say, emphasis added!